In case you haven't noticed, animal-rights activists have become increasingly active. Consider the following: Last year the California Milk Advisory Board ran its "happy cows" ads featuring singing, wisecracking dairy cows contentedly munching grass in bucolic bliss. Viewers loved them, but in December, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued, claiming the ads violate consumer protection laws by deceiving consumers about the way cows actually live. (Note to PETA: cows don't really sing, either.)

In Illinois last June, PETA was outraged when a casino invited customers to play ticktacktoe against chickens. PETA objected to "the Chicken Challenge" because the game "disrespected chickens."

In Phoenix, a teacher threatened to sic her classroom of six-year-olds on a seafood restaurant to force the owner to stop its "cruel" practice of putting live beta fish on display in fish bowls. The fish were ultimately put up for adoption.

It's hard not to laugh at stories like these, and that's usually what we do. Until recently, the animal-rights movement has been viewed as little more than a radical fringe group. But in truth its proponents have a serious agenda—one that challenges Christianity's most fundamental doctrines. And one, as I discovered in the last election, that is having a surprising impact on the public.

On Florida's ballot was a constitutional amendment to outlaw housing pregnant sows in stalls so small the pigs can't turn around. I was certain my fellow voters would not put such a thing in the state constitution. To my amazement, they did—54 to 46 percent.

As Michael Pollan writes in a brilliant New York Times Magazine article, the animal-rights movement is scoring remarkable triumphs in its effort to have animals declared morally equivalent to humans. Last year, for instance, Germans passed a law "obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity" of animals just as it does humans. In England, the farming of animals for fur was recently outlawed.

Here at home, a recent poll found that just over half of all Americans think primates should have the same rights as human children. Though it's hard to imagine anyone taking Princeton philosopher Peter Singer seriously given that he advocates bestiality, his book Animal Liberation has converted thousands to vegetarianism.

To be sure, some changes in how animals are treated on farms, in labs, and in zoos may be needed. But at the same time, we must understand that much more than humane concerns is driving the modern animal-rights movement.

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Scottish philosopher Alex MacDonald explains that as Darwinian theories of evolution gained favor, animal-rights advocates could logically argue there is no essential difference between humans and animals. Professor Singer, for instance, writes, "On the basis of evolution … there is no clear dividing line between humans and animals."

PETA's Ingrid Newkirk even compares eating meat to the Nazis' Holocaust and openly says the animal-rights movement is "at great odds" with "supremacist" Christian teachings.

Ominously, some animal-rights activists carry their logic to extremes: If it's "murder" to kill a chicken, for instance, it's morally acceptable to try to stop the "murderer." Wesley Smith writes on National Review Online about animal-rights terrorists who employ "death threats, fire bombings, and violent assaults against those they accuse of abusing animals."

One such group, the Animal Liberation Front, "posted a how-to-commit-arson manual on its website," Smith says. In the Netherlands, an activist is charged in the assassination of a candidate for parliament—one who had publicly defended pig farming.

Clearly, animal-rights proponents are serious—and dangerous. Charles Oliver of Reason magazine puts it well: "By placing chickens and Jews on the same ethical plane," as Newkirk does, "animal rights activists may inadvertently make it easier for a future Hitler to herd millions of humans into gas chambers."

Oliver is right. The philosophy behind the animal-rights agenda is an assault on human dignity. As Christians, we have a moral duty to respect the animal world as God's handiwork, treating animals with "the mercy of our Maker," as Christian writer Matthew Scully writes in his excellent new book, Dominion.

But mercy and respect for animals are completely different from rights for animals—and we should never confuse the two.

Related Elsewhere

A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Matthew Scully's Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy is available at, as is Peter Singer's Animal Liberation.

Articles referenced above include:

An Animal's Place—Michael Pollen, The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 10, 2002)
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Exposing animal-rights terrorism—Wesley J. Smith, National Review Online (Oct. 2, 2002)
Liberation Zoology—Charles Oliver, Reason Magazine (June 1990)

Recent Charles Colson columns for Christianity Today include:

Faith vs. Statistics | Beware of doing ethics by crunching numbers. (Jan. 28, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
A Clan of One's Own | Hacking through the jungle of identity politics. (Oct. 9, 2002)
Undaunted | Bioethics challenges are huge. But so is God. (July 31, 2002)
The Wages of Secularism | New laws won't prevent another Enron. (June 4, 2002)
More Doctrine, Not Less | We need to proclaim truth to a truth-impaired generation. (April 15, 2001)
Post-Truth Society | The recent trend of lying is no accident. (March 4, 2002)
Drawing the Battle Lines | We need to be informed and discerning about the Islamic worldview. (Jan. 9, 2002)
Wake-up Call | If September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)
The New Tyranny | Biotechnology threatens to turn humanity into raw material. (Oct. 5, 2001)
Merchants of Cool | We should be angry that the media hawks violence and that parents allow it. (June 6, 2001)
Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (Apr. 17, 2001)
Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)
Pander Politics | Poll-driven elections turn voters into self-seeking consumers.(Jan. 3, 2001)
Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (Nov.8, 2000)
MAD No More | In this post-Cold War era, it's time to rethink our nation's defensive strategy. (Sept. 27, 2000)
Salad-Bar Christianity | Too many believers pick and choose their own truths. (Aug. 8, 2000)
A Healthy 'Cult' | A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God's power transforms culture. (June 12, 2000)

Previous Breakpoint commentaries on animal-rights activists include:

Caring for the Creation | By Charles Colson, April 3, 2003
Are Pigs People Too? | By Charles Colson, November 20, 2002
On Boundless Webzine, Anne Morse wrote on this subject in "Murder Most Fowl."

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Previous Charles Colson Columns:

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